Trapped Behind a Desk

Nescio, the frustrated shipping clerk who became a beloved Dutch literary hero.

Popular Dutch writer Nescio

This essay is excerpted from the introduction to Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, out this month from NYRB Classics.

It seems extraordinary that Nescio should have any reputation. He wrote very little, and he wrote small. His standing becomes all the more unlikely when one considers how little time he allocated to sitting down to write. From the dates he appended to his finished work, it appears that his productive composition of fiction was limited to a handful of years scattered between 1909 and 1942, with almost nothing written in the 1920s and 1930s. How many important artists have been such slight practitioners?

Nescio’s work is highly preoccupied with the vexing, tragicomically lopsided proportions of human endeavor. All of Nescio’s writing is framed by the problem of a life’s smallness, and almost all of it is concerned with the grandiose struggle of young men, or men who were once young, against the compulsory dimensions of experience—metaphysical bafflement, the inseparability of desire and suffering, the demands of duty and work and social respectability. Not for nothing, in this context, is the English word plight (a bad situation) related to the Dutch word plicht (duty, obligation):

I sit on the hill and look down into the valley of obligations. It is barren, there is no water, there are no flowers or trees in the valley. A lot of people are milling around, most of them drooping and misshapen and constantly looking down at the ground. Some of them look up every once in a while and then they scream.

The Nescio who wrote so gloomily in November 1922 was a 40-year-old who had published a single volume of stories and whose pen name means “I don’t know” in Latin. His public self was a businessman named J.H.F. Grönloh, a paterfamilias responsible for the care and upkeep of a wife and four daughters and in possession of no realistic option but to allow his days and years to be put at the service of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company, an enterprise devoted to the exportation of goods to India. This state of affairs never ceased to amaze and perplex Nescio, and not only because, like many writers, he was given to amazement and perplexity. He came of age when the social and existential predicament of the clerical classes was coming under unprecedented literary scrutiny, not least from the clerks themselves. Nescio (b. 1882) was a contemporary of Franz Kafka (b. 1882) and Robert Walser (b. 1878).

He was the son of an Amsterdam shopkeeper. At a very early age he fell in love with taking walks and as a 9-year-old began to go on solitary outings, making written records of his impressions. (Walking—in and around the margins of Amsterdam and farther afield in the Netherlands—became a passionate lifelong pursuit.) In 1899, the year he graduated from trade school and embarked with neither success nor enthusiasm on a series of minor office jobs, he logged 522 kilometers on foot. Around this time, Nescio fell in with a circle of young men who had in common a horror of the petit bourgeois life and a personal interest in finding an alternative. This did not, unfortunately, eliminate the need to earn a livelihood. As Nescio fictively writes:

Bekker and I had to spend most of our time at the office and do whatever those gentlemen said, and listen to their ridiculous opinions when they talked to each other, and put up with the fact that they thought they were much more clever and capable than we were. And when they thought it was cold then all the windows had to be shut and in winter the lights had to come on much too early and the curtains had to be pulled shut so we couldn’t see the red sky and the twilight in the streets and we had no say in it at all.

Nescio fatefully committed himself to a business career in 1904, got married in 1906, and almost immediately began fathering one child after another. Only subsequently, and one might say consequently, was he driven to produce, in the decade beginning in 1909, his bittersweet accounts of dreaming, scheming young men and their perdition.

His first published story contains his most famous character—the freeloader, Japi, who belongs to a strange human species of incompatibles distinctive for their indisposition to activity and whose varieties might include Melville’s Bartleby, Beckett’s Murphy, and Walser’s “divinely gifted layabout.” The freeloader exists at the edge of a group of impecunious, talkative young men with ambitions to become writers and artists and otherwise “astound” the world. (They would seem to be the exact, if less cerebral, contemporaries of the undergraduate Stephen Dedalus and his fellow collegians. James Joyce was also born in 1882.) The freeloader has no ambitions. He admits, “I’m not a poet and I’m not a nature-lover and I’m not an anarchist. I am, thank God, absolutely nothing.” He passes his time wandering around and sampling the (to him) gratis pleasures of life: the feeling of rain, a slice of cake, a beach, a glass of jenever, a fine pair of yellow shoes. Mysteriously knowledgeable, rarely disagreeable, the freeloader excites friendship and envious curiosity even as he disregards the boundaries authorized by property and propriety:

The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal and peered into your cupboards and borrowed your money and wore out your shoes and took out your coat when he had to go home in the rain.

To recap: in his early 20s, he is pulled under, into the bourgeoisie; he writes, de profundis, about such pulling under; he secretively publishes a book of these underwater writings in 1918; he then succumbs fully to his bourgeois fate. Either he has no more writing in him or he must suppress that writing—suppress Nescio. In any case, Nescio can no longer be.

Amsterdam Stories
by Nescio
NYRB Classics

It’s true that, after a rumor that someone else was the author of his book, Nescio’s actual identity emerged; but he was able or willing only to write a few, bitty things. His life’s largest undertakings remained, it seems, walking and working. He became, it has been reported, a notably demanding and severe boss, and eventually a director of the company. Then, in 1937, he retired. “I’m free,” he later wrote, “after forty years I’m free, and I can cut my hair whenever I feel like it and let it grow too if I want.”

Yet still Nescio did not write much, which is consistent with the notion that his impulse to write was essentially hobbyistic—which is to say, profoundly voluntary. Writing not actuated by pleasure or self-realization would have been Nescio’s idea of “doing.” Nescio was not a doer. As one of his narrators states, “I want to be, and for me to do is: not to be.”

But over the course of a few February days in 1942, in the midst of the Occupation, Nescio did get onto paper the remarkable “Insula Dei.” It is winter, and the narrator, an Amsterdam journal-keeper of sorts, records “A hostile world, a world in tatters. A world of cold and poverty.” He runs into Flip, an impoverished friend, and, puffing on precious cigars, they mull over old towns, old rivers, old vistas. (Flip remarks of the Occupation, “How could someone occupy me? That has nothing to do with me. Being poor has nothing to do with me either.”) The friends have further meetings. The narrator, a walker of course, discovers, while strolling, mystical inklings of contentment. The snow thaws, turns to slush.

Nescio’s second book was published in 1946. Further sketches and stories appeared in 1961, the year of his death. Only posthumously did his work become so known and esteemed that it is now part of the modern Dutch canon. The work is also popular: Nescio is beloved in Holland. This is partly on account of the gentle, humorous mischief he makes, a favorite joke being his fear of scandalizing his buttoned-up Dutch reader. In “Little Poet,” the hero

sees all the women sitting at the outdoor tables and walks past them to the street. “Oh God,” he thinks, “what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” A nearly mad little poet thinks the strangest things. You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my lady readers… Mercy me, perish the thought.

The comic note is an element of the famous Nescionic voice, which has within it wryness, lightness, simplicity, and daring vulnerability. The desire to read Nescio (especially in the marvelous Dutch, of course) is the desire to be in the presence of that voice, whatever it may be saying to us. “Us,” here, refers not only to the familiar aggregate of readers. It refers also to the single reader, because one reads Nescio in the first person plural. His voice speaks to all our selves and most keenly to those which, unless we are not human, we must keep secret.

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